Against the odds, exports of NZ’s primary produce have increased by $7.5 billion over the last two years and now stand at $45.7b for the year ended June 2019.
Reporter Peter Burke spoke with the new director general of the Ministry for Primary Industries about his plans for the future and how he will manage the department.
First and foremost, Ray Smith is a people person. His previous roles heading the Department of Social Welfare and, more recently, the Department of Corrections, have seen him deal with challenging types.
As head of Corrections, Smith led 9000 staff, and while MPI has a smaller staff, its role is wider and impacts the lives of all New Zealanders. He says the primary sector is the backbone of the economy and unless it’s successful NZ has a bleak future.
The other difference, Smith says, is that MPI is much more externally focused than the other departments he’s worked for.
“Farmers and other people depend on what we do to help them in difficult situations and M.bovis has been incredibly hard for farmers to get their heads around,” he told Rural News.
“A lot of them are hurting... especially those who have had to depopulate their farms and restock.”
Smith says his top priority is making sure the eradication of M.bovis succeeds and he’ll be dedicating much of his time to supporting farmers affected by the disease.
He says MPI’s role in biosecurity is of paramount importance and getting visitors to NZ to declare fruit or vegetables is a priority for him and the department.
While MPI has a large regulatory role within NZ, more resources of the department are now being directed offshore to biosecurity and to trade-related issues.
“We have staff in 13 countries now and I can see that expanding as trade agreements expand. We need to work closely with industry to make sure the products people receive overseas can be traced to show they come from an environment where we care about ensuring our products are safe,” he explains.
“We need to show consumers that when they buy something from NZ they can trust it and believe in it.
“We also want to generate more wealth from our primary products.”
Smith says as part of this the regulations that MPI administers are important in stipulating rules people must comply with.
“MPI has a critical role to make sure people conform to the standards we all expect and, yes, there will always be more regulation.”
Smith says the aim is to get people to lift their performance to the highest level possible which will lead to more high-value products being produced.
Who is Ray Smith?
Although Ray Smith has spent all his working life until now in social welfare and corrections, he has strong personal and family links to the land.
He was born in Pukekohe and as a five-year-old at school he would look out the window and see top-dressing aircraft spraying nearby crops. His father was a stock agent who bought pigs.
The family moved to Hawera where Craig Norgate -- the first head of Fonterra -- was a personal friend, classmate and in the football team Smith captained. He loved Taranaki and enjoyed the opportunities it offered.
Smith was the top junior tennis player in the province and he developed leadership skills at an early age. He also spent time on his older brother’s dairy farm in Waikato.
“As an 11-year-old I’d be sent up to Te Awamutu to his farm for the holidays. I’d spend summer on one of the farms he was working on and it was great fun haymaking, learning to drive tractors and all the things you learn to do on a farm,” Smith said.
“He is still farming, I have a connection into that world and I think most Kiwis growing up in NZ in my time probably had the opportunity for some connections with that world.”
As head of Corrections, Smith had a big interest in farming because that department ran prison farms.
When he left school at 17, Smith started at the Department of Social Welfare on the ground floor, but quickly rose to the top of the agency. He says by starting at the bottom and working in difficult places such as South Auckland, he learned what life is like for front-line staff. His mantra has been to empower people to make decisions, but as manager he has always ensured that their workplace is safe.
“When working in South Auckland, I visited thousands of homes and got bitten by a few dogs. I learnt a lot about the way people lived, their lives and what they didn’t have in their lives, and I thought how fortunate I was.”
Smith wants to use his leadership skills to good effect in MPI and help staff to achieve their potential. In the last few weeks, he has been running open forum for head office staff and getting out into the field.
“I’m loving the job and the challenges it offers. I have been with my staff at the terminal at Auckland International airport and I admire those people hugely because they work in very cramped conditions.
“I have been out on the wharf as 1800 people disembarked from a cruise ship, talked with farmers in Invercargill and also been to the Canterbury A&P Show. I have also been to MPI’s laboratories in Upper Hutt and Auckland.”
Smith says he hopes his skills as a leader will ensure that the good work of MPI and its staff continue.